Locking down earlier would have meant going against scientific advice, Matt Hancock tells MPs

ITV News Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks has the highlights from Matt Hancock's evidence

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he was aware at the start of the pandemic that 820,000 people could die from Covid-19 but that ordering an earlier lockdown would have meant going against scientific advice.

Matt Hancock was questioned over allegations made by the Prime Minister's former aide Dominic Cummings to the Health and Social Care Committee and Science and Technology Committee.

Asked why the government had missed signs in early 2020 that the death toll could be large, the Cabinet minister said: "We knew about this problem from the start."

"And the challenge in those early weeks of March was making a massive judgment - probably the most significant judgment that any Prime Minister has made in, certainly in peacetime, based on incomplete information, and a great pace."

He added: "The clear scientific advice at the time was that there was a need to have these tools like lockdown at your disposal but also that the consequences and the costs of lockdown start immediately and, critically, the clear advice at the time was that there's only a limited period that people would put up with it, would put up with lockdown.

"Now that proved actually to be wrong."

Health Secretary Matt Hancock gives evidence to MPs

Mr Hancock insisted he had scrutinised the advice but "ultimately we didn't know how long people would put up with it and now it seems obvious that people will put up with lockdowns - it was not at all obvious."

"These are huge decisions; to take those decisions against the scientific advice is an even bigger decision to take."

He said "challenging the scientific advice is one thing, but overruling a scientific consensus is much harder, especially when the costs of the lockdown are immediate and are obvious."

The Health Secretary denied lying to Boris Johnson at any point during the pandemic, telling MPs he has always been driven to behave with "honesty and integrity".

Asked by science committee chairman Greg Clark if he ever said anything to the Prime Minister he knew was untrue, Mr Hancock replied: "No."

He said he has always answered "questions - both in public and in private - to the best of my ability".

Dominic Cummings gave seven hours of evidence to MPs. Credit: PA

Regarding Mr Cummings's claims that he told Mr Johnson in March 2020 that people being discharged to care homes would be tested, Mr Hancock said: "We set out a policy that people would be tested when tests were available and then I set about building the testing capacity to be able to deliver on that."

Mr Hancock told MPs he was "driving the system to drive up testing capacity" in January 2020 but, while Public Health England's advice was good regarding the science, "there was simply not the experience to drive up the capacity".

The Health Secretary said the government had "tried" to throw a protective ring around care homes but that it had been difficult.

"Each and every death in care homes weighs heavily on me and always will," he added.

Earlier, Mr Clark said the committee had not received any written evidence from Mr Cummings to back up his claims or any explanation as to why it had not been provided.

Mr Hancock said he "bitterly" regretted not overruling scientific advice at the start of the pandemic that stated coronavirus could not be transmitted asymptomatically.

He said: "I was in a situation of not having hard evidence that a global scientific consensus of decades was wrong but having an instinct it was.

"I bitterly regret that I didn’t overrule that scientific advice at the start and say we should proceed on the basis that there is asymptomatic transmission until we know there isn’t rather than the other way round," he added.

When questioned about the government's procurement of PPE, Mr Hancock denied that shortages had lead to the deaths of frontline workers.

He said: "We've looked into this and there's no evidence I can see that a shortage of PPE provision led to anybody dying of covid.

"That's from the evidence I have seen.

"What I do know though is PPE provision was tight, it was difficult and it was difficult around the world."

Mr Hancock was accused by the Prime Minister’s former chief aide of lying to Boris Johnson over coronavirus plans and being “disastrously incompetent”.

Among the explosive claims from Mr Cummings last month was that Mr Johnson was furious to discover that untested hospital patients had been discharged to care homes, alleging that Mr Hancock had told them both that people being discharged would be tested.

Mr Hancock said government "has operated better in the past six months" since Dominic Cummings left Downing Street but said he has "no idea" why Mr Cummings had a dispute with him.

Asked if he knew the ex-aide wanted him to be fired, Mr Hancock told MPs: "Yes, because he briefed the newspapers at the time. Or somebody briefed the newspapers, I now have a better idea who that was."

He added: "I think the best thing to say about this, and this will be corroborated by lots of people in Government, the best thing to say, is that Government has operated better in the past six months."

The testimony comes as the Guardian reports that several of the UK’s biggest care home operators say they repeatedly warned the Department of Health about the risks of not testing such people in March 2020.

According to the paper, Care England raised concerns over “lack of testing in hospitals and in the care sector” with the Department of Health and Social Care “several times”.

The Guardian also reported the Care Providers Alliance told the Government to “prioritise testing for care residents” in March 2020 and emailed Mr Hancock directly to warn anyone discharged from hospital to social care settings “MUST be tested before discharge”.

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Mr Hancock has since denied promising hospital to care home testing and told the Commons last month that it was not possible to test everyone leaving hospital for social care at the start of the pandemic because the capacity was not available.

He added “his recollection” was committing to delivering testing for people going from hospital into care homes “when we could do it”.

Ahead of the hearings trade minister Greg Hands said he thought Mr Hancock had "done a terrific job" and had not "let anybody down."

Speaking to ITV News, Mr Hands said: "I don't think Matt Hancock let the public down.

"There was a very, very difficult set of decisions being made right the way through this pandemic...I think Matt Hancock has done a terrific job as our Health Secretary.

"I strongly support him, it's been a very difficult job the last 18 months being Health Secretary of this country."

He added that "individual things that different people did" would be examined at a public inquiry.

Meanwhile, Mr Cummings has been told by senior MPs that his allegations about Mr Hancock would be considered “unsubstantiated” if he failed to provide proof.

The controversial former adviser has already missed a deadline set by the two select committees he appeared before to back up his claims, it emerged on Wednesday.

Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt, who chair the Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committees, wrote to the controversial aide setting a deadline of June 4.

Regarding his claims on Mr Hancock, they said: “We are sure you understand that without further evidence we have to consider these allegations as unsubstantiated.”

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